I recently was at the doctor's office for my annual physical. As I checked in with the receptionist, I was handed a pile of forms and instructed to fill them out and return them to her when I was done. I found a seat and began to fill out the forms. I was amazed and amused at the number of multiple choice questions with each being used to try and describe who I am.
It got me thinking about why we, and society in general, have such a knack to want to label everything.
Perhaps it is human nature to want to simplify complex concepts by categorizing and grouping information. All around us, labels are attached to us that try and define us based on categorizations like race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. These social labels not only reflect and affect how others think about our identities, but also shape our own perspectives of how we see the world and ourselves.
It has only gotten worse in this era of big data. No longer is the collection of data just limited to forms that we fill out. Today, personal information is being collected through our normal everyday activities such as shopping, internet browsing, and use of smart devices and social media. Advances in technology has not only allowed for greater access into our lives but also the ability to label and profile us at an individual level.
The problem with labels is that they are binary in nature. A person is either this or not, but an individual person is much more complicated than that. We need to start pushing past our natural tendencies to see things in a binary. Our identity is not composed of one label or even a set of labels, rather, each of us is the sum of many different aspects of our personality, environment, and experiences that come together to form a one-of-a-kind, unique person. It is what makes us individuals.
We all have stories. We all have identities. Sometimes, we shorten those stories and identities into labels to make it easier to explain and to prevent rambling and wasting someone else’s time. But sometimes, those labels are dysfunctional and they don’t always work. We are more than the tags and the labels we put on ourselves. We’re not movies, books, or songs that can be categorized into genres. Our life and the values we hold are not merely pictures that can be described by a short caption or a hashtag.
The truth is, labels don’t have to define us. Labels put us in a box, but we can open that box and break free. By becoming aware of labels, we can start to loosen their hold on us. Only then can we begin to challenge them and test them against reality. Some refer to this as becoming self-aware.
Thinking about it now, in answering the questionnaire, I was unconsciously putting myself back in a box, like I was some sort of present that needed to be wrapped and presented to others. My physical went well. As far as the results, I am sure that they will be added and categorized in the abyss of big data along with those from my other like-labeled fellow patients.
(To be continued)